World-renowned musicians give students an earful at preview of Cathedral Concerts

Molly Seeser, a fifth-grader at Holy Redeemer School in Webster Groves, sat confidently at the organ at the front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and began playing before a gathering of about 800 people.

Pretty good for a first-time organist who's been playing the piano since she was age 5 or 6. After he asked for volunteers to play the organ, Paul Jacobs, the only organist to win a Grammy Award, picked Molly and Harrison Parish, a seventh-grader at St. Louis the King School at the Cathedral.

Though she didn't show it, Molly admitted she was a bit nervous. She's used to the piano where the sound is heard immediately after pressing on the keys. "The organ has a delay. I have been a bit curious about it, but I prefer piano. It's a lot less complicated," Molly said, adding that she enjoyed hearing the sound bounce around in the open space of the cathedral basilica.

Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer, who teamed on a new recording, "Divine Redeemer," gave a free performance Oct. 14 for children from 13 Catholic and public grade schools in Missouri and Illinois. The children also were treated to a demonstration of the organ's workings.

The two world-renowned musicians kicked off the new Cathedral Concerts season with a performance later that day.

"This is a great opportunity for the kids," said Scott Kennebeck, executive director of Cathedral Concerts. "Some may go to churches that don't have or don't use an organ. It's a symphony in one instrument."

In the right hands and with the right organ, there are "so many colors of the organ that one player can play to make a tremendous sound," he said. It's an effect that during a worship service or concert that provides the true meaning of the music a composer was trying to reflect, he added.

The pipe organ, referred to as "the king of instruments," has "a huge range," Jacobs said to the students as he demonstrated high and low notes and pointed to a pipe that's 16 feet tall. The organist controls the pipes by the knobs, he explained, playing one called a trumpet and another that says flute.

Brewer, who has sung in opera houses and symphony halls around the world, added another dimension for the students. She sang Bach's "Bist du bei mir" based on the Book of Ruth, a setting of the "Salve Regina" by Puccini and the Bach/Gounod arrangement of "Ave Maria."

Among the pieces Jacobs played was Charles-Marie Widor's Toccata from Symphony No. 5.

Brewer and Jacobs praised the students for their listening skills, noting they were more polite than many of the audiences for whom they've played. They then took questions from the students. One wanted to know what type of shoes Jacobs wears when playing (all leather) and another wanted to know how long it takes Brewer to rehearse a piece (sometimes two or three months).

The students also learned that the cathedral basilica has 7,621 pipes arranged over 118 ranks. It takes 6 to 8 seconds for the sound to be absorbed in the cathedral basilica, depending on the humidity and temperature as well as the number of people in the cathedral basilica.

The pipe chambers have shutters that can be opened and closed to increase the volume of sound that comes out of those pipes.

Ethan Joly, an eighth-grader at St. Stephen Protomartyr School in south St. Louis, had never experienced anything similar to the performances. He was impressed with the time and hard work the performers devote to their craft.

Cathy Zitko, a sixth-grade teacher at St. Joan of Arc School in south St. Louis, added that "we loved hearing the organ. The sound was so rich and deep. Hearing Miss Brewer singing in person was especially nice."

Cathedral Concerts Series

The music presented in the concert setting at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis transcends entertainment.

"Some of the programming we present can be performed or is performed at Powell Hall or some other symphony hall places. When you add the sacred nature of the cathedral space with the sacred music being performed, it brings everything to another level. It gives it extra meaning and it becomes more than entertainment," said Scott Kennebeck, executive director of Cathedral Concerts.

The program that soprano Christine Brewer and organist Paul Jacobs performed was music written to be presented in a resonant space such as the cathedral basilica, Kennebeck said. "They had in their mind as they wrote this music how it would sound, how chords would combine with each other as they echoed in this space."

The 2015-16 season has several highlights. On Thursday, Oct. 29, the choir Tenebrae will be featured at 8 p.m. "Their voices blend seamlessly," Kennebreck said, noting that when they hit the high C note on the Allegri "Miserere," it "just soars and floats through the cathedral — the perfect spot for that kind of music."

Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere," a setting of Psalm 51, was used in the Sistine Chapel, but Allegri didn't want anyone else to have it, so it never was published. A popular story is that Mozart heard it and wrote down the music from memory. The lights at the cathedral basilica will be low and the sanctuary will be filled with candles for the piece written for the Tenebrae service of Holy Week.

The Vienna Boys Choir returns for a holiday concert on Saturday, Nov. 21. The Christmas at the Cathedral concert on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 12 and 13, has the Sonos Handbell Ensemble and Frederica von Stade with the St. Louis Archdiocesan Choir.

The lineup continues with organist Nathan Laube on Sunday, Jan. 31; the Polish Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra, Feb. 29; the Bach Society of St. Louis, March 13; Choir of St. John's College on April 8; and Cathedra on May 13.

For ticket information, visit www.cathedralconcerts.org or call (314) 533-7662.  

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